Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Su Tung-po:

Tracks in the Snow


In a previous set of articles on an illustrated Qing-dynasty memoir, 鴻雪因緣圖記 [hongxue yinyuan tuji] by Lin Qing 麟慶, we have presented a number of episodes from those memoirs, or commentaries on the book, along with the corresponding illustrations.

Yet the title of the work itself is worthy of note, being rendered variously into English as: A Wild Swan’s Trail; Tracks in the Snow; Footsteps in the Snow of a Solitary Goose; Record of a Goose Life’s Traces in the Snow; Wild swan on the snow; among many others. In fact, it is a reference to a famous poem by Su Tung-p’o [Su Dongpo], or Su Shi 蘇軾, a poet-official of the Sung [Song] dynasty, entitled « 和子由澠池懷舊 », which expresses the impermanence and ephemeral nature of a fleeting human existence.







To what should we compare human life?
It should be compared to a wild goose trampling on the snow.
The snow retains for a moment the imprint of its feet;
the goose flies away no one knows where.

– trans. Simon Leys



This poem was written in reply to a poem by his brother, Tseyu [Ziyou]. Lin Yutang, in his biography, The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo, says:



“The brothers often ho, or “echoed” each other’s poems; to “echo” a poem is to answer it with another one using the same rhyme words. It was a good test of poetic skill, for the rhyming had to be natural, and this was one of the accomplishments of all scholars in ancient China. People looked for surprising, or delightful, or refreshing, tunes of thought, expressed with the prescribed rhyme words, and the lines had to have natural sequence. As in a crossword puzzle, the difficulty increased the delight when the rhyming was done with ease and without effort. In one of these earliest “echo” poems, written to Tseyu, Tungpo already revealed a complete mastery. Having to write a poem where the first two rhyme words had to be “snow” and “west,” Tungpo wrote:

To what can human life be likened?

Perhaps to a wild goose’s footprint on snow;

The claws’ imprint is accidentally left

But carefree, the bird flies east and west.

It remained one of Tungpo’s best poems. The flying bird was a symbol of the human spirit. In truth, the events and doings of Su Tungpo we are reading about in this book are but the accidental footprints of a great spirit, but the real Su Tungpo is a spirit, like a phantom bird, that is even now perhaps making dream journeys among the stars.”


In his commentary on Lin Qing’s book, John Minford notes the reference and translates the lines freely as:

To what can this human life be likened?

Perhaps to a wild swan treading on the snow;

it leaves a few tracks and flies on blithely into the unknown.”


In his Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o, Burton Watson has translated the poem in full:


 Rhyming with Tzu-yu’s ‘At Mien-ch’ih, Recalling the Past

Wanderings of a lifetime – what do they resemble?

A winging swan that touches down on snow-soaked mud.

In the mud by chance he leaves the print of his webs,

but the swan flies away, who knows to east or west?

The old monk is dead now, become a new memorial tower;

on the crumbling wall, impossible to find our old inscriptions.

Do you recall that day, steep winding slopes,

road long, all of us tired, our lame donkeys braying?



Kenneth Rexroth renders the entire poem as:

Remembering Min Ch’e

A Letter to his Brother Su Che

What is our life on earth?

A flock of migrating geese

Rest for a moment on the snow,

Leave the print of their claws

And fly away, some East, some West.

The old monk is no more.

There is a new gravestone for him.

On the broken wall of his hut

You can’t find the poems we wrote.

There’s nothing to show we’ve ever been there.

The road was long. We were tired out.

My limping mule brayed all the way.


(“Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese”, New Directions, 1970)

One very insightful reading of Su’s poem is that of Chan Master Nan Huai-chin (Nan Huaijin, 南怀瑾), in his commentary on the Diamond Sutra (Diamond Sutra Explained):


Master Nan Huai-chin

“Su Tung-p’o wrote a famous poem which came out of his Buddhist practice:

Human existence anywhere can be likened to what?

One ought to describe it as a bird touching down

On new-fallen snow, leaving by chance a track.

When the bird flies, does it plan to go east or west?

He posed the question; the course of one human existence can be likened to what? Like a bird on a snowy day, alighting on the snow for a moment, leaving a claw print, “leaving by chance a track.” The snow continues falling after the bird flies off, covering over the print, no trace remains. After the bird has flown off, whether it be north, south, east or west, the bird is gone and no print remains.

Most people’s goals in life are to raise a family, have a career, children, grandchildren, etc. The day one’s eyes close, limbs go limp and one passes from this world – when the bird flies – does one plan to go east or west? At that point, there is no such thing. These are Su Tung-p’o’s famous lines.”



(Nan Huai-chin, “Diamond Sutra Explained, translated by Pia Giammasi, published by Primordia Media, 2004).

Lastly, there is one other version of the poem available online, translated by A. S. Kline, entitled “Remembrance”.

 To what can we compare our life on Earth?

To a flock of geese,

alighting on the snow.

Sometimes leaving a trace of their passage.


That Lin Qing named his memoirs after such a poem shows his concern with leaving a “track” of some sort, on the one hand, and his sensitivity to literature – mentioned by Herbert Giles in the first post of this series – on the other. One scholar, writing about a poem by Linqing notes:


Drawing on a metaphor made famous by Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101), Linqing lamented the evanescence of life by likening his own sense of the predestined yet ever fragile bonds with human beings and places to the “goose-tracks in snow.” The phrases “xue ni 雪泥” and “hong zhua 鴻爪” meaning “snowy mud” and “goose-tracks,” respectively, are clearly inspired by Su Shi’s poem to his brother, “He Ziyou Mianci huai jiu 和子由澠池懷舊”. Here, Su uses goose-tracks left in the snow as a metaphor for the random and transient nature of life. Like the tracks left by the migrating geese on the snowy mud, humans who hurried through their life were seldom able to recognize the things, events, and relationships which they left behind. In Su’s context, “goose-tracks in the snow” are the patterns of one’s past life whose fleeting transience defies comprehension and memory. But the memory and understanding of such past things, events, and relationships was the very essence of human experience (ren sheng 人生).

– Xun Liu: Immortals and Patriarchs: The Daoist World of a Manchu Official and His Family in Nineteenth-Century China. In: Asia Major, 17.2 (2004)

(Click to enlarge)

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Ni Zan: Dreaming about Wang Xizhi (幾夢山陰王右軍)


The dream world cannot be found
away from my pillow –
but nowhere on the pillow can I find it.
And when I am in the dream world
my pillow might as well not exist.
Awake, I feel my dreams are empty;
in dream, the waking world has disappeared.
Can I be sure that the waking universe
has no pillow beneath it?
If dream and waking alternate,
which is fantasy, which is real?

Yüan Hung-tao

Pilgrim of the Clouds, Weatherhill, 1978                                                                                            Poems and Essays from Ming China, translated by Jonathan Chaves

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